Divisions among the press will only further delay proposed reforms

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The Independent Online

The British press is engaged in unprecedented acts of self-flagellation, offering itself up for £1m fines, promising to accept punishments of lost advertising revenue and make its foot soldiers carry new identity cards. In a deluge of reports submitted to Lord Justice Leveson last week, the newspaper industry did everything it could to head off the threat of state regulation, or the "Sword of Damocles", in the words of Lord Hunt, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission.

According to Paul Dacre, editor in chief of the Daily Mail and the chairman of the PCC's Editors' Code Committee, the industry's proposed concessions would create "the toughest press regulatory body in the free world".

But the public will rightly question the sincerity of this breast-beating show of remorse in the face of the wrath provoked by the phone-hacking scandal. Lord Leveson himself will be reluctant to embrace the solutions put forward by a regulator whose failings led to his inquiry being set up in the first place. The judge's enthusiasm for the extensive proposals made by another industry body, Pressbof, is likely to be dampened by the knowledge that it is the funding organisation for the PCC.

Leveson reached out to the press to give him answers about how the industry could salvage its reputation - but the British news-stand is so diverse that it inevitably struggles to speak with one clear voice.

Although Lord Black of Brentwood, the executive director of Telegraph Media Group, has worked hard to present the Pressbof plans as the industry's position, it is largely the work of media lawyers rather than the voice of the editorial floors where the crucial decisions about how stories are covered are taken.

As Lord Leveson calls for feedback, the two newspapers most closely scrutinised during his inquiry, The Sun and Daily Mirror, are in disarray. This month, Scotland Yard arrested the latest of more than 10 Sun journalists held as part of inquiries into alleged illegal payments to public officials. Lawyers and management at News International are so heavily engaged in addressing the all-consuming hacking and corruption investigations that the future of press regulation has been low on their priority list. The dismissals of the editors of the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror have created editorial turmoil at publisher Trinity Mirror, where the chief executive Sly Bailey resigned this month.

In his own submission to Leveson, Mr Dacre complained of the "loss-making, elitist publications" which he said "have had the loudest voices about this inquiry".

The comments are illustrative of the difficulties of the industry in finding common ground. They also acknowledge that it is the quality end of the market which has done most to expose the iniquities in the business, while tabloid colleagues have shown little appetite for reform, even allowing for the limited interest of their readers. Interestingly, a former editor of The Sun, David Yelland, is signatory to a more far-reaching proposal for press reform submitted by the Media Standards Trust, which calls for a degree of statutory intervention in the form of a "backstop" auditor who would be established in law and have responsibility for approving self-regulatory organisations and auditing them on an annual basis. Yelland's position will not sit comfortably with former colleagues.

In total, Leveson accepted no fewer than 22 submissions from various parties suggesting new approaches to press regulation, which the judge will consider in Module 4 of his inquiry, which begins today. Among them is a plan put forward by Max Mosley, whose own taste for self-flagellation led to him becoming a victim of the News of the World's intrusive reporting, transforming him into an outspoken press reformer. Mosley's proposals for a press tribunal with powers to levy huge fines of up to 10 per cent of group turnover on news organisations are swingeing and would be seen as a non-starter by the industry.

And then there is the "Desmond dilemma". Though the owner of Express Newspapers has lawyers working with the Pressbof team, his papers still sit outside the PCC and none of the recent Leveson submissions had a convincing explanation for how to coax what Lord Hunt described as "errant sheep" into the self-regulatory pen.

Such divisions threaten to delay reform to a degree that will even further undermine public confidence in the press, unless the judge has a more effective answer of his own.